09.05.2018 - 14.10.2018

The spectacle of Mont Blanc and other adventures for sale



Albert Richard Smith – surgeon, author and above all showman – was one of the most popular figures in Victorian London. His packed lecture-shows at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly offered British society the opportunity to live the exotic dream of the Alpine heights. Furthermore, he was the first to realise the potential of merchandising in the modern sense of the word, exploiting it to the full.
The exhibition and the book of the Museo Nazionale della Montagna, ALBERT SMITH. LO SPETTACOLO DEL MONTE BIANCO E ALTRE AVVENTURE IN VENDITA (THE SPECTACLE OF MONT BLANC AND OTHER ADVENTURES FOR SALE), curated and edited by Aldo Audisio and Veronica Lisino – realised within the scope of the INTERREG V-A ITALIA-FRANCIA ALCOTRA 2014-2020 “iAlp” cross-border project and funded by ERDF – European Regional Development Fund, with the collaboration of Musée Alpin – Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, the Regione Piemonte, the City of Turin and the Italian Alpine Club – represent the most comprehensive operation of research and dissemination ever carried out on the figure and accomplishments of Albert Smith.
Over time, through patient research and the acquisition of many small items – old prints, photographs, programmes and handbooks, sheet music, newspaper clippings, toy theatres and optical devices, magic lanterns, plates, games, fans –the Museum has formed a large collection of objects that, after more than a century of oblivion, allows an in-depth reconstruction of Smith’s mountain-inspired activities.
After taking part in the fortieth ascent of Mont Blanc in 1851, Smith described this experience in the magnificent lecture-show he staged at the Egyptian Hall in London: Mr. Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc – astounding performances, a true mix of emotion, entertainment and instruction. With the help of dioramas, plays of light, songs, narrations and imitations, he made his audience feel as though they themselves had climbed the peak. Pursuing a bold marketing strategy, he also produced a great variety of gadgets to accompany the show. At a time when no one had ever dreamed of commercialising their own adventures, he even set up a veritable souvenir shop, selling, among other things, sledges, Alpine sticks and chamois horns.



The show was repeated until 1858, counting two thousand performances and the merit of having fuelled one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century, while successfully bringing the wafts of snow and blasts of blizzards swirling around Mont Blanc to the banks of the Thames.
The popular response was overwhelming, a true manifestation of collective hysteria, with The Times even talking about “Mont Blanc mania”: crowds of English visitors, driven by curiosity for that unique world, poured into the Valley of Chamonix in search of that earthly paradise, astounding yet terrible, at only twenty-fours hours’ train journey from London.
When the Alpine Club was founded in London in 1857, many people had already heard about the Alps, thanks also to Smith, who was invited to become a member.
Albert Smith died in 1860, when only forty-four years old: his presence on the English stage lasted for a handful of years, yet it is difficult to think of it as a meteor.
With the “Mont Blanc mania” over, passion for mountains, the exotic and exploration remained, fuelled by significant exploits a long way from the Alps. The desire to climb impervious peaks and tackle extenuating glaciers without moving from the comfort of one’s home, as initiated by Smith, was now
satisfied by board games, photographs and later films.

Then, as the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th began, the Arctic and the Antarctic, the Klondike gold rush and the peaks of the Himalayas – especially Everest – were what most fired the curiosity of the man in the street. The art of merchandising was systematically exploited and developed astonishingly, as testified by the numerous items today on show, all from the collections of the Museo Nazionale della Montagna.
The exhibition, designed by Marco Ribetti and Mario Scarzella, revives – also through a reconstruction of the Egyptian Hall, where the visitor may pause to watch the film Mr. Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc – the “wondrous” aura of the Victorian period in which Albert Smith lived and of which he was a perfect interpreter.

The project is accompanied by the book ALBERT SMITH. LO SPETTACOLO DEL MONTE BIANCO E ALTRE AVVENTURE IN VENDITA (THE SPECTACLE OF MONT BLANC AND OTHER ADVENTURES FOR SALE), edited by Aldo Audisio and Veronica Lisino, published by the Museo Nazionale della Montagna. It is a trilingual volume of 432 pages, enriched with a wealth of images, with texts – in Italian, French and English – by: Aldo Audisio, Darren Bevin, Angelo Recalcati, Laure Decomble and Lucinda Perrillat-Boiteux, Alessandra Ravelli, Veronica Lisino, Donata Pesenti Campagnoni, Ulrich Schädler, Tony Astill, Francesca Villa, Roberto Mantovani and Leonardo Bizzaro.